When travelling back to the UK I always try to see at least one photography exhibition, as unfortunately it is not always easy to see others exhibit their work here in Korea, so making an effort whilst at home, always gives me a good excuse to have a day out, which inevitably involves a trip to London (my favorite place).
Whilst researching possible exhibits to visit over the Easter period, I saw that the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London would be holding an Ansel Adams exhibition, coinciding with my time at home nicely, so without hesitation, I knew I just had to go. I have never really done much research into ADAMS, or sat for hours admiring or pondering over his work, but of course, being a photographer, and being amongst like-minded individuals, I had seen examples of his work and heard many rave about his images. So it was with great anticipation that I arrived in Greenwich, bought my ticket and was ready to be amazed.
The exhibition was well laid out, grouping similar images under titles such as ‘SEA and SURF’, ‘WATERFALLS’ and ‘CLOUDS and REFLECTIONS’ each of which contained images that spanned the many years that ADAMS had taken to perfect his craft. As I started to wander around the exhibit, I was quiet amazed at what I was seeing and that was when I identified a real sense of disappointment beginning to build in the pit of my stomach. Some of the photos that had been chosen were, well, terrible; out of focus, out of linier and just out of place – I mean this was supposed to be Ansel Adams, “Arguably America’s most celebrated photographer” (Prodger, 2012) and I felt like I was looking at snapshots, taken by a six year old that had picked up his parents iPhone.
Okay, I am going to stop right there as this probably sounds like I was not at all happy with what I was seeing, and in some instances I was not, probably because I thought that some of the work that had been chosen for the exhibit was just wrong and out of place, BUT having since done some research into the exhibition and read what others thought about this body of work, I can see why the choices of images were made and also why I felt like I did at the time of my visit.
Going back to my sentence above, ‘the exhibition was well laid out, … that spanned the many years that ADAMS had taken to perfect his craft’, I think this is the key to this exhibition, as not only were some of ADAMS’ most celebrated works such as “The Tetons and the Snake River” and “Stream, Sea, Clouds” on display, but also works that had taught him his craft and helped him identify what he did and did not like within photography.
The forward in the exhibition programme states:
At the start of Adams’s career in the 1920s, photography was in turmoil. The older generation still clung to the idea, dating from the late 1800s, that only photographers who made pictures that looked like paintings or drawings could be considered true artists. These photographers, loosely called Pictorialists, used soft-focus, textured papers, and coloured emulsions to give their pictures a handmade, personal look, often evoking stories from mythology or literature.
As an aside, last year I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum, where a Cecil Beaton exhibition of the Queen was taking place for her Jubilee (I wrote about this in my TOAP learning log). I remember reading at the exhibition that BEATON, and other photographers of the time, used pictorial photography to add colour to their images, and the earlier photographs of the Royal Family and the then Princess’ Elizabeth and Margaret show much evidence of this. Thankfully, BEATON saw the error of his ways and introduced ‘real’ photography methods in later images; and this change was probably around the same time that the views of pictorial photographs changed as the ADAMS programme continues;
After the brutality of the First World War, many viewers came to see Pictorial photographs as hopelessly sentimental and nostalgic. Gradually, harder-edged forms took hold. At first in Europe and New York, and later in California, artists embraced photography’s mechanical qualities and sought to ‘let the camera speak’, this attitude, which paralleled developments in painting and literature, came to be known as Photographic Modernism. Adams was one of the leading figures in this movement.
So, what really happened when I walked through those doors to the exhibition in Greenwich? I was taken on a journey; in fact I had been privileged to see the photographic journey that ADAMS had taken in his lifetime – which is really the same journey that all photographers take, from learning, to following then through to personal creation. Yes, those early photographs were crude, especially those taken in the summer of 1916 by a 14-year old boy with his first Kodak Box Brownie, but photography knew no difference back than and photographers followed ‘the norm’ taking images that were romanticised by demand and pleasing to their audiences eye. All I can say is thank god ADAMS was seen as a modernist, and with his group of like-minded colleagues, experimented with aperture to bring us some of the most amazingly mind-blowing images of the time.
In November 1932, ADAMS and a group of eleven photographers collaborated their interest in a new, emerging form of photography, where images were captured by large-format view camera’s, using the smallest aperture available, thus allowing them to reveal the world ‘as it is’. This collaboration was called “Group f/64”, named after the aperture setting of the day required to achieve clarity, and stood for these photographers’ beliefs that the world should be captured as it was seen, and not how people perceived it to be. Weston (1932) stated:
The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.
For three years, the group continued to capture images were the largest percentage of the frame was in sharp focus, only possible by the use of such a narrow aperture, and lengthening an images depth of field. It was often thought that Group f/64’s images had nothing in common, as a mixture of subject matter was captured, but their natural bond was the meticulous concern of revealing the exact features of what was being presented in the frame and not the soft-focused images, so common of the time.
For me, the highlights of the exhibition were not only some of ADAMS’ more famous works, but also the display of three wall-sized prints that had been produced for the American Trust Company Building in San Francisco. I can still remember the feeling of awe I experienced when standing in front of them and of my husband (who is by no means a photographer) whispering “WOW” in my ear. As he matured as a photographer, ADAMS’ command of composition was perfect, and I can see why we as photographers feel no shame in copying his ideal, in fact, there are pages of images on Flickr and the Web that are dedicated to the reproduction of his works. ADAMS also liked to mix different kinds of textures together within the frame; hard and soft; rough and smooth and even fluid and solid, which was the fundamental base for this exhibition, and are the fundamental compositional attributes we all strive to achieve.
While getting ready to write this post, and to try and justify some of my thoughts and feelings surrounding this exhibition, I came across some interesting articles and although, like me, not everyone was completely happy with this show of work, you can not take away the fact that everyone involved with photography (and probably the arts in general) has one or two favorite Ansel Adams photographs. Mine are here:
I really like the light in the photograph and how the water shimmers, making it the most prominent element within the frame. There is a nice use of leading lines both in to, out of and through the image. The thing I do not like here are the clouds and I feel, when combined with the rolling waves of the shore there is too much ‘fluffiness’.
When I first looked at this photograph I though ‘if this had been taken in today’s world there would have been extensive cropping into the frame, eliminating much of the rock and pebbles from the shot. Looking really closely here, you can see so much detail and you could probably count the number of pebbles on the beach, or even the tendrils of the Anemones. Even though this is a close up image, it represents a classic f64 aperture image.
The presence of light in this shot is amazing and I love the way each pathway that the water follows is highlighted. There are two forms of water photography here, the sharpness of the water as it falls over the rocks and the fluidity of the water as it mingles with the water already fallen over the edge. This is a difficult image to achieve, I love taking photos of water, but have never been able to get the exposure as perfect at this, although I have not learnt how to manipulate my images yet, as I know ADAMS did in his darkroom.
I may not have gone into great detail about the actual exhibition, or commented on the ethics behind ADAMS’ work or even the working methods he adopted, but I did learn something about the kind of photography I like and the kind of photographers I respect. I like clean, crisp images – now that does not mean that I will start widening my aperture or taking photos with infinite clarity and visibility, but I do like to see parts of an image in absolute focus, with no blurred lines and lighting so perfect that most areas within the frame are visible. And I respect those photographers who want to get the best out of their medium, who are not afraid to experiment or stand up for what they believe in, even if that means taking photography along a whole new pathway – now these are the guys I respect.
One final thought, and one I will probably kick myself about from time to time – why did I not conducted this research before I went along to the museum? Perhaps I would have felt more at ease whilst looking at those earlier images, and in turn I would have had a greater understanding of what was being presented too me in the photographs on show, but alas, I just did not find the time to make those few internet key-stroke, which in turn means that I did not get the most from this great exhibition, such a shame, if only I could visit again …
Adams, A. (2012/13) The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942. [Photograph] ‘Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea’. Greenwich: National Maritime Museum. 9 November 2012 – 28 April 2013.
Adams, A. (2012/13) Stream, Sea, Clouds, 1962. [Photograph] ‘Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea’. Greenwich: National Maritime Museum. 9 November 2012 – 28 April 2013.
Adams, A. (2012/13) Sea Anemones, 1969. [Photograph] ‘Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea’. Greenwich: National Maritime Museum. 9 November 2012 – 28 April 2013.
Adams, A. (2012/13) Fern Spring, Dusk, 1961. [Photograph] ‘Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea’. Greenwich: National Maritime Museum. 9 November 2012 – 28 April 2013.
Prodger, P. (2012) Ansel Adams Photography from the mountains to the sea. Greenwich: National Maritime Museum
Hostetler, L. (2004) Group f/64. Cited in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History [Online Article]. Available at: <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/f64/hd_f64.htm> [Accessed 19 April 2013].
Encyclopaedia Britannica. (n.d.) Group f.64 [Online Article]. Available at: <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/247121/Group-f64> [Accessed 19 April 2013].
HikerBiker, J. (2013) Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea [Online Article]. Available at: <http://www.johnh.eu/blog/ansel-adams-photography-from-the-mountains-to-the-sea.html> [Accessed 19 April 2013].
Hostetler, L. (2004) Group f/64 [Online Article]. Available at: <http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/f64/hd_f64.htm> [Accessed 19 April 2013].
Sewell, B. (2012) Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea, National Maritime Museum, SE10 – review [Online Article]. Available at: <http://www.standard.co.uk/goingout/exhibitions/ansel-adams-photography-from-the-mountains-to-the-sea-national-maritime-museum-se10–review-8297082.html> [Accessed 19 April 2013].